Pattern is meaning: on the style of *Lolita*

On of the most evident sources of irony in Lolita is coincidence. What Humbert Humbert sees as “those dazzling coincidences” (31) are obviously not coincidences–the text (or, if you prefer, Nabokov) knows that, and we know that. In other words, Humbert tells us he sees coincidence and we know that the text is saying, between the lines, “don’t trust this guy.” In other words, Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, because his interpretation of things is evidently different from the interpretation that the text itself asks us to make. This even though Humbert is the one narrating the text. We have to read between the lines, and the issue of coincidence is one of the easiest places to see where Humbert’s account is not the same account as the novel’s itself.

What do these coincidences mean? Well, it’s hard to say exactly, but this is a perfect chance for me to air one of my mantras of literary analysis: Pattern is meaning. What that meaning is remains to be determined, or not. But pattern means. Those in the sciences may find this easier to swallow than others, perhaps.

Pattern is everywhere in Lolita. You only need to look at the first paragraph to see a remarkably patterned prose:


(Source: Vladimir Nabokov. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel. New York: Vintage, 1991. 9.)

What does this textile-like pattern of sounds mean? Well, I don’t know if it has a meaning in the sense of a solution hidden behind appearances. But it means. No doubt someone could analyze the pattern and find ways in which it fits a larger reading of the novel. Who knows? Let me know if you do.


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